Discussing Controversial Issues
All considerations of how we should behave must start with the golden rule, to treat each other as we want to be treated; and the new commandment, to love one another as Christ loved us.
Controversial subjects are proliferating among us. It is becoming ever more common for certain brothers and sisters to escalate these speculative issues into tests of fellowship. These topics are not in our Statement of Faith, and for most of them, we have traditionally allowed flexibility of thought without fear of withdrawal.
In contrast, today these issues are sometimes made the basis of withdrawal of fellowship from individual members, or from whole ecclesias, or even from large segments of the community.
This article identifies nine behaviors we must maintain as we discuss controversial subjects:
- Be Christ-like in all our interactions
- Stay calm
- Assume good motives
- Be quick to listen, slow to speak
- Be prepared to give an answer
- Be trustworthy
- Avoid gaslighting and gaslighters (see definition below)
- Build up our brothers and sisters
- Agree to disagree on non-essentials
1. BE CHRIST-LIKE IN ALL OUR INTERACTIONS
All considerations of how we should behave must start with the golden rule, to treat each other as we want to be treated; and the new commandment, to love one another as Christ loved us; and the fruit of the spirit, to be peaceful, kind, gentle, and faithful; and the new clothing we have in Christ, to be compassionate, humble, and patient, forgiving and forbearing one another:
2. STAY CALM
Staying calm in the heat of the battle is perhaps the most difficult challenge, but it is essential:
3. ASSUME GOOD MOTIVES
Bro. Bill Link recently published an exhortation in the Tidings on dealing with conflict within our spiritual family.2 His words are based on the exhortation to Sisters Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:1-8, which he recaps: “If we are to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, let us remember our brothers and sisters for good, focusing on their strengths and virtues.
So then, the next time we find ourselves feeling some discord with a brother or sister, let’s try to think of Paul’s seven-step solution. 1) Get help; 2) ‘Rejoice in the Lord’; 3) ‘Be gentle’; 4) Remember ‘the Lord is at hand’; 5) Don’t worry; 6) Pray, with supplication and thanksgiving; and 7) Think on praiseworthy things. It’s hard to be in conflict with someone we admire.” (p. 280).
Step 7 summarizes Paul’s words:
As Bro. Harry Whittaker pointed out in Exploring the Bible, the Greek word translated “think” is translated “impute” and “reckon” in Romans 4. In other words, Paul is encouraging us to attribute things that are noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy to brothers and sisters we are at odds with. This is easy to say, but hard to do.
4. BE QUICK TO LISTEN, SLOW TO SPEAK
One common theme of all advice about how to have fruitful discussions is the importance of listening.3 You must listen first before you speak. Ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. Listen to learn and understand, not merely to reply.
Reflect on the answers and give them full consideration before responding. And this goes for both parties. Effective dialog requires two-way communication with both sides listening to the other. Understanding the other person’s point of view is critical for any response you might offer to have any relevance to the discussion. James and Proverbs emphasize this point:
5. BE PREPARED TO GIVE AN ANSWER
Once you’ve heard the other person so that you understand their position and could defend it with the best defense possible, then you can start to prepare your answers to their questions. Give this effort your full due diligence.
You are to educate the other person on your perspective. You need to be prepared to make the case for your viewpoint. You can’t assume they know it already. They need you to help them understand it.
In addition, we must routinely challenge our own viewpoint. We must maintain our intellectual integrity, searching out and acknowledging the weaknesses in our own case. It is easy for us to become isolated in an information bubble that we think represents the whole Christadelphian world.
We can unwittingly suffer from constant confirmation bias, never hearing any other opinions, so having no doubts about our own views. This can lead us to a false assumption that everyone agrees with us and that if anyone disagrees then they shouldn’t be in fellowship. Enlarging our circle of connections and making sure it has a wide range of diverse views can mitigate such a situation.
6. BE TRUSTWORTHY
I often hear that brothers and sisters need to trust each other more, that this is the main reason there are divisions between us. No doubt lack of trust is a major issue, but it is likely the consequence of a bigger issue, the lack of trustworthiness. We need to be faithful to each other. We need to keep our word and avoid saying one thing and doing another. We need to be honest and reliable.
trust should be a judgment based on trustworthiness.
British philosopher Onora O’Neill (1941- ) gave an excellent TED talk on our misunderstanding of trust.4 She identifies three commonly held views about trust:
- A claim: there has been a great decline in trust.
- An aim: we should have more trust.
- A task: we should rebuild trust.
Then she debunks these three clichés, emphasizing that trust should be a judgment based on trustworthiness. We should trust those who are trustworthy but not those who are not. Being trustworthy involves being competent, honest, and reliable.
Trust is a response based on a judgment of the other person’s trustworthiness. We can’t rebuild trust, because it is a response over which we have no direct control. Instead, we should work to rebuild our trustworthiness (1) by being trustworthy and (2) by providing evidence that we are trustworthy.
Making ourselves vulnerable to others is a key to communicating our trustworthiness. O’Neill’s general comments are particularly germane to our interactions with one another in our community of faith. If we want to be trusted, we must be trustworthy in our behaviors. Scripturally, by default we ought to trust our brothers and sisters, but such trust can be eroded if either side demonstrates a lack of trustworthiness.
Failing to be trustworthy can undermine the basis of trust and cause deterioration of the relationship. So, we all need to work on becoming more trustworthy and on providing sufficient evidence of our trustworthiness so that others can trust us.
Increased trustworthiness prompting increased trust will certainly improve our ability to have fruitful dialogs on controversial topics. One concrete example are the frequent misrepresentations of Bro. Harry Whittaker’s views of prophecy.
Various brothers routinely report that he was a “preterist”, meaning that he thought that Revelation was entirely fulfilled in AD 70. The fact is he argued for three fulfillments, with AD 70 being the first, the standard continuous historic view being the second, and a future fulfillment in the last days leading up to the second coming of Christ being the third.5
Anyone who has read his book would know this, so either these brothers are not competent (because they haven’t made the effort to know what they need to know to talk intelligently about Bro. Whittaker’s views), or they are not honest (because they do know and are intentionally misrepresenting the facts). In either case, these brothers are not reliable sources of information on this topic.
7. AVOID GASLIGHTING AND GASLIGHTERS
Dr. Alison Cook has written several excellent blog articles on spiritual gaslighting6 which she defines as follows:
“Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which your reality or experience is systematically and intentionally invalidated. It is when a person or group questions your experience or your perception or reality in order to keep their power… Their goal is not to help; it’s to make you feel crazy, weak, or dependent… Spiritual gaslighting is when a person or faith community uses spiritual tools, such as God-language or the Bible, to cause you to question your own reality in order to retain power over you. This is spiritual abuse.”
She gives several real-life examples of spiritual gaslighting. Here’s one to make the idea more concrete:
“You confide in the members of your small group that you are struggling with feeling lonely. The response you hear in return is: ‘You aren’t really lonely. You’re simply not trusting God enough.’” See how the person’s experience is invalidated as if they have a spiritual problem.
We must avoid gaslighting others, even unintentionally. For example, we must not distort our brothers and sisters whose views we disagree with by asserting they are being driven by humanism or feminism when in reality they are sincerely trying to determine and follow the teachings of Scripture.
As another example, we must not spread inaccurate rumors about the things said at reunion meetings. Such behavior would be particularly egregious if you were intentionally misrepresenting the views of those whose opinions you oppose, even if you think you are justified in doing so: “I know what you meant even though you said the opposite.”
Such misinformation often causes those who don’t know better to misunderstand the actual situation. It can also cause those who are being misrepresented to question whether they actually said what they know they said. Dr. Cook argues that the Bible’s word for those who gaslight others is “fool”. Here are some of the verses she quotes of the many warnings against foolishness (all from The Message):
She quotes Proverbs’ advice on how to respond to gaslighters (from The Message):
She summarizes how we should handle gaslighting fools:
8. BUILD UP YOUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS
The first century ecclesias faced a major controversy over the keeping of the Jewish dietary laws. Paul’s comments on this issue provide relevant exhortations for how we should deal with the controversies we face today; in particular, we must not cause our brothers or sisters to fall, instead we must build them up in love;
The same exhortation applies more generally to our dialog with one another:
9. AGREE TO DISAGREE ON NON-ESSENTIALS
No matter how important our “hobby horses” or personal preoccupations are to us, most of them are not essential to salvation and should not be made tests of fellowship. This includes most of the controversial topics we face today, including:
- Reconciling the Bible and science, with topics like the age of the earth, the detailed mechanisms of creation, the scope of the flood, etc.
- Different approaches to the interpretation of Bible prophecy.
- How to harmonize Bible history with archeology.
- Ecclesial differences on handling divorce and remarriage cases.
- Gender roles in ecclesial worship services.
- Different opinions on intricate nuances concerning the doctrine of atonement.
- Fellowship practice and ecclesial autonomy.
- God’s spirit in the lives of believers today.
In such things, we must not insist that others accept our opinion, no matter how strongly we hold it. We must strive to discuss these controversial subjects in a Christ-like manner.
Austin Leander, TX
1 Unless otherwise noted, Bible quotations are from the New International Version (NIV, 2011).
2 William Link, Jr., “Dealing with a Difficult Brother or Sister–Paul’s Seven Step Solution,” The Christadelphian Tidings, June 2021, 278-280.
3 See, for example, Celeste Headlee, “10 ways to have a better conversation,” TEDxCreativeCoast, May, 2015 (https://www.ted.com/talks/celeste_headlee_10_ways_to_have_a_better_conversation); and Megan Phelps-Roper, “I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s why I left”, TEDNYC, February, 2017 (https://www.ted.com/talks/megan_phelps_roper_i_grew_up_in_the_westboro_ baptist_church_here_s_why_i_left.Megan).
4 Onora O’Neill, “What we don’t understand about trust”, TEDxHousesOfParliament, June 2013 (https://www.ted.com/talks/onora_o_neill_what_we_don_t_understand_about_trust).
5 Harry Whittaker, Revelation: A Biblical Approach, Ch. 11, “It is now time to consider the Seals in detail. It is important always to have in mind the triple fulfilment of this part of Revelation, which has been argued for in the two preceding chapters: a. A.D. 70. The Fall of Jerusalem. b. The ‘continuous-historic’ application (‘Eureka’). c. The Last Days and the Coming of the Lord. “In what follows the second of these will be omitted. It has already been excellently done elsewhere. (For those without the time to give detailed consideration to the three large volumes of Eureka, Notes on the Apocalypse by C.C.W. will be found most valuable. It is an admirable digest of the bigger work.)”
6 Alison Cook: “Should I Turn the Other Cheek?” (https://www.alisoncookphd.com/should-youturn-the-other-cheek/); “Gaslighting and the Importance of a Good B.S. Detector” (https://www. alisoncookphd.com/gaslighting-and-the-importance-of-a-good-b-s-detector/) ; “Gaslighting and the Bible: How to Respond When Someone is Manipulating You” (https://www.alisoncookphd.com/ gaslighting-in-the-bible/). The concept of “gaslighting” has skyrocketed in our current culture. The term comes from the play that was made into the 1944 movie “Gaslight” staring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman.